Carmel woke up as she always did—trembling and in search of water. She never remembered pouring the glass or placing it on the nightstand, but the habit had automated itself years ago, as with breathing at birth or any other cast that had kept her alive. She was grateful to have not soaked the sheets. It had been days, four of them, since she had awoken to a scent not unlike protein powder, having clumped with milk on a counter freshly wiped with bleach.
Her unemployment checks enabled what had already lain nascent inside her, from genetic predisposition and what she had witnessed. As a child, she pretended the sounds from the living room were that of a movie, the volume of the television unreliable as everything else. But eventually she unwillingly outsmarted the trick. Everything could only function for so long. And while she tried more advanced forms of denial (it was the neighbors, it was psychosis, she was dreaming), none of them ever stuck. Now she had the Klonopin, the Ambien, and the Bota Box wine.
Her job at the call center had lasted just long enough to qualify for the unemployment, and she hadn’t been bad at it. She was especially adept at scaring elderly women into buying things they didn’t need. She harbored a sweetness that seemed to outlive her, grow beyond her, and touch others with its vapored tips. But she had started drama. Everywhere she went, as her mother put it, she brought drama. It was why she was kicked off the volleyball team, her mother liked to remind her, why every boyfriend had dumped her, why her father never called, and, most importantly, why she couldn’t keep a job to “save her life.” What she wanted to say, but didn’t, was that she wouldn’t do anything to save her life. She didn’t want to; in fact, she wanted to give it away.
Carmel’s cat, which she had found behind the broken shard remains of a discarded box television’s screen only one month earlier, jumped onto her yellowed, faux-down comforter and screamed for food. The meowing was urgent and deranged, like a smoke detector, and Carmel sprung out of bed to shut it off. Of course, there was no food, only empty, concave cardboard boxes of off-brand Meow Mix. The fugue state responsible for Carmel’s glass of water had not yet become accustomed to caring for a cat. She slid on rain-damaged Minnetonkas and thought beeeeeeend, and snap! as she plucked her EBT card from the mottled living room carpet. The jerking motion caused her frontal lobe to throb. She turned the bottom lock and slammed the door behind her as she left the apartment for the stinging autumn air.
In the summer, she had given the deli guy a blowjob, of which she only remembered the end, as his cum had tasted so acrid, it jolted her out of a blackout and forced her to register the fluorescent lit litter bag against her ear, on a dusty shelf by which she knelt. Abdul lifted his pants back to his hips and pointed toward the beer case as he said, “This time it’s on me.”
The EBT card had been accepted like legal tender ever since: for cat food, tampons, Parliaments, Twizzlers, and, more often than anything else, beer. There was no doubt the rest of the staff knew, considering the men—probably cousins—always snickered while ringing her up. Maybe they hope it will happen to them, she thought. And she was so unsure of herself that she couldn’t be certain whether or not it would.